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A South Korean luge athlete makes a training run in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 5.   © Getty Images
Cover Story

How Moon's Olympic hockey gamble is exposing South Korean rifts

North Korea olive branch sparks backlash among young economic have-nots

SEOUL/INCHEON -- Park Jong-ah hit a long, hard shot from the left side of the rink, sending the puck skidding past Sweden's goalie and into the net. It was the first-ever goal for the unified Korean women's ice hockey team, a group of players who about two weeks earlier suddenly found themselves at the center of an effort to de-escalate the world's most dangerous standoff. For now, though, no one was thinking about politics. About 3,000 fans erupted into cheers as Park, the South Korean captain, high-fived with Kim Un Hyang, her teammate from North Korea.

Park and her team went on to lose to fifth-ranked Sweden in the friendly match in Incheon, held just five days before the opening ceremony, but this was hardly the point. "We are one," the crowd chanted as they waved flags bearing the image of a unified Korean Peninsula. Sarah Murray, the team's American coach, praised the North Korean players for their quick work adjusting to the new team.

"I think the North Korean players played very well. This is probably one of the biggest crowds they faced, but they worked hard," said Murray after the match. "For being added only 12 days ago and not getting much practice, they played pretty well."

But not all South Koreans are happy with the unified team, which was hastily assembled after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's surprise announcement in his New Year's address that led to North Korea's participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Park Ji-hyun, 27, who studies Japanese language at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he cannot understand why the government allowed North Korean players to "steal" a chance of playing in the Olympics from South Korean athletes who had fought for a spot on the team.

"I'm against the so-called unified team because it's unfair for South Korean players to lose their chance to play in the games due to the North Korean players," Park said. 

Players on the unified Korean women's ice hockey team watch the action during their warm-up match against Sweden.   © Kyodo

He is not alone. The North's sudden decision to participate in the Olympics -- eagerly embraced by South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- has unleashed a wave of conflicted feelings in the South. Many complain that North Korea has been allowed to hijack the games. Some say Kim Jong Un has played Moon for a fool and will return to his belligerent ways as soon as the Olympics are over. And while there had been an enormous sense of national pride as South Korea's first Winter Olympics approached, the North Korean drama has brought some of the country's simmering social and political tensions to the surface.

Moon was elected last year with strong support from voters in their 20s and 30s, having pledged to make the country fairer in the wake of corporate and political scandals. A liberal who favors an eventual reunification with the North, Moon had hoped the South Korean public would embrace the joint hockey team as a symbol of what he has labeled the "Peace Olympics." Instead, his goodwill gesture has become a sort of proxy for grievances held by many in the country -- especially the young people who helped put him in office.

The plight of the women who trained hard to earn a spot on the South Korean women's hockey team, only to be sidelined in favor of the women from the North, seemed familiar for many high-achieving young people in South Korea. An opinion poll found that 72% of respondents opposed the joint hockey team, but the rate of opposition was even higher among people in their 20s and 30s, at 82%.

These are members of the "sam-po" generation --  20- and 30-somethings who feel they have had to give up their prospects for romance, marriage and having children because of economic and social pressures. They are very well-educated -- South Korea is a world leader in higher education attainment -- but many have been left saddled with debt from high tuition fees. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in hoped the public would embrace the idea of a joint hockey team, but the move has rubbed many people, especially the young, the wrong way.   © AP

Despite a booming economy, youth unemployment is a serious social problem. The unemployment rate for those between 15 and 29 years old hit 9.2% in December, up from 8.4% a year earlier -- about three times higher than the country's average of 3.3%.

The sense that hard work may not pay off, whether for university graduates or hockey players, may help explain the opposition to the unified team. "Young people who work hard to acquire special skills don't accept the decision to take opportunities away from athletes who have devoted their youths to the Olympics," said a 34-year-old employee at an IT company.

Surprised by the backlash, Moon apologized for failing to communicate with the women's hockey team before making the decision. "We made the unified women's ice hockey team to improve South-North relations, but we did not discuss the matter with the players in advance. Each player is more important than a big project," he said on Jan. 30. 

The pageantry and excitement of the Olympics may help to ease such concerns, at least in the near term, boosting Moon's efforts to use the games as an opening to bring North Korea together for talks on denuclearization. "We have a great opportunity to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis thanks to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, which brought the South and North to the table," Moon said in a meeting with his secretaries last month. "The talks were made as the shadow of war was approaching the Korean Peninsula."

The January opening from North Korea came after months of rocket tests and macho posturing between the country's 34-year old leader and U.S. President Donald Trump. Since then, a spirit of detente has broken out as officials from the South and North agreed to have both countries' athletes march together under the "unification flag" in the opening ceremony. The International Olympic Committee gave its blessing to the unified hockey team and allowed North Korea to send 22 athletes in three sports and five disciplines.

But there are real fears that the Olympics will offer only a momentary halt to the North Korea crisis -- especially as Trump continues to push a policy of "maximum pressure" that conflicts with Moon's hopes for engagement.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's trip to South Korea for the Winter Olympics "will be mainly focused on messaging to Moon's government that however well the North Koreans might behave during the games, Seoul must continue to offer its full support for the U.S. 'maximum pressure' strategy," said Scott Seaman, a director at Eurasia Group, a think tank based in New York. 

The powerful and the public

Yet if the North Korea crisis has added an anxious dimension to the games, by other metrics the host country is having a strong run. Asia's fourth-largest economy is enjoying robust growth thanks to brisk exports, particularly for high-tech goods. The country's gross domestic product expanded 3.1% last year, the highest figure in three years. The Bank of Korea reckons the country's economy will grow 3.0% this year.

Workers are starting to feel the effects of the improving economy. Shim, a manager at SK Hynix, received a bonus of 40 million won ($37,000) this month -- the equivalent of half his annual salary. The extra money reflects the chipmaker's record-high earnings. "I will use this money for my wedding in the fall," said the 35-year-old.

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix have led the export boom, thanks to strong prices for their memory chips. Samsung also posted record-high earnings last year and overtook Intel as the world's largest chipmaker.

South Korea's exports jumped 15.8% to $573.7 billion in 2017 from a year earlier, with a surplus of $95.3 billion, according to the trade ministry. The country added 320,000 jobs last year, up 6.7%.

As the countdown to the Olympic opening ceremony began, however, the country was reminded of the controversy that has prompted widespread anger at its family-run conglomerates, or chaebol. On Feb. 5, a Seoul court released Samsung group leader Lee Jae-yong from prison, halving his sentence and suspending the five-year jail term he was dealt on conviction of bribery and embezzlement. 

Lee was convicted in August last year for offering favors to former President Park Geun-hye and her close confidante, Choi Soon-sil, in return for paving the way for his ascension to the leadership of the conglomerate by allowing a merger. The scandal cost Park her job, and she is now standing trial on charges of bribery, abuse of power and coercion. 

The appeals court ruled that Samsung had not tried to win favors from Park.

The release of Lee, the grandson of Samsung's founder, was a setback for reformers who had hoped the scandal would prompt an overhaul of the country's chaebol -- and their ties to the government. 

The scandal prompted Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG -- the top four chaebol in the country -- to announce measures toward more open corporate governance. Samsung, for instance, plans to appoint independent outside directors at its shareholders meeting in March. The country's antitrust body, chaired by former civic activist and scholar Kim Sang-jo, is also seeking to push them toward governance standards on a par with those in advanced economies.

But civic groups said the ruling showed nothing of substance had changed. "We find it hard to believe that the appeals found Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong to be a de facto victim," said Solidarity for Economic Reform, a civic group promoting transparent corporate governance, in a statement. "We strongly condemn the ruling, which goes against common sense." 

Police wall off protesters waiting for U.S. President Donald Trump's motorcade to pass by in central Seoul in November.   © Reuters

The opposition People's Party said it was "questionable whether the public can accept the ruling." And Park Yong-jin, a lawmaker with the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea, said the decision demonstrated "how Samsung is above the law once again." 

Peninsula tensions

Perhaps because they have lived with threats from the North for so long, South Koreans are optimistic that the tensions on the peninsula will ease this year. In a survey conducted by Hankook Research in January, 75% expected the security situation to improve in 2018. 

But danger levels remain high, as North Korea declines to negotiate over its nuclear and missile programs while the U.S. is weighing military options. Trump's January withdrawal of support for Victor Cha, who had been considered for the post of ambassador to Seoul, has elevated concerns about possible U.S. action. Cha has voiced opposition to the idea of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea -- an option U.S. military officials have labeled a "bloody nose." The rejection of Cha, a former Bush administration official who is considered to be a North Korea hawk, has led to questions of who Trump might find acceptable for the position. The lack of a U.S. ambassador in South Korea at such a sensitive time has worried U.S. foreign policy experts.  

Fear of a "bloody nose" strike even led the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo to run an editorial opposing a U.S. strike against Pyongyang. "It is time to maximize the effectiveness of sanctions on North Korea, not the time for military adventures. We are sure that the Trump administration knows this very well," said the daily in its Feb. 2 editorial.

South Korean marines take part in a joint landing drill with U.S. forces in Pohang, South Korea, in April 2017.   © Reuters

International security organizations have also expressed concerns about possible war in the region. "North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, combined with bellicose rhetoric from the U.S., mean the risk of a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula is higher than at any time in recent history," International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that researches and facilitates conflict resolution, said in a report last month.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly told participants in a 20-nation ministerial meeting about North Korea that the U.S. has already prepared a war plan in case diplomatic efforts fail. 

Experts agree that if war breaks out on the peninsula, it will be catastrophic, potentially killing hundreds of thousands soldiers and civilians in both Koreas within a few days. A nuclear war would be even more devastating. 

The key for South Korea is how Moon navigates between the tough and unpredictable U.S. president and a young, little-understood North Korean leader. North Korea is sending 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea, as the leader of the delegates to the Olympics, opening the possibility of talks between South Korea, or even the U.S., led by Pence.

But at the moment, it appears that the Moon and Trump administrations are miles apart. Both Tokyo and Washington want to maintain pressure on North Korea until it gives up its nuclear weapons and missile programs. But Seoul increasingly wants to leverage the Olympics as a way to open dialogue with its estranged neighbor -- a strategy some find risky.

"It is very important to keep a close relationship with the U.S. over North Korea policy in the post-Pyeongchang strategy," said Choi Kang, vice president at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a South Korean independent think tank. "President Moon should make it clear that South Korea will not be a shield for North Korea. If [Moon] sticks to pursuing dialogue with the North, it may strain the South Korea-U.S. relationship as well as isolate Seoul on the international stage."

Nikkei staff writer Kenichi Yamada in Seoul contributed to this report.

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